Northwestern University Struggles With its Heritage

Northwestern University granted part of a college group’s petition last week that created a commission to look into whether the school’s founder, John Evans, should be praised or disowned. Last year, a group of students organized as the Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance (NAISA) called attention to Evan’s possible guilt in Colorado’s Sand Creek [...]

Northwestern University granted part of a college group’s petition last week that created a commission to look into whether the school’s founder, John Evans, should be praised or disowned. Last year, a group of students organized as the Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance (NAISA) called attention to Evan’s possible guilt in Colorado’s Sand Creek Massacre. Now Mitchell Caminer reports in North by Northwestern that leading up to Founder’s Day, the birthday of John Evans, school administrators have promised to begin looking into Evans more closely.

John Evans, for whom Evanston, Illinois is also named, was one of the three men who worked to create Northwestern University in the late 1800s. He did many admirable things, which the school has been proud to cite.

He made one of the first financial contributions to the university, and lobbied state and local politicians to secure land north of Chicago. In addition to his role as Northwestern co-founder, Evans was a physician, abolitionist and Chicago alderman.

But there’s more to the story. Before he came to Chicago, Evans was a territorial governor, and his tenure was not peaceful or uncontroversial. At the time, the Colorado Territory was working to open land to settlers, pushing its native tribes into other places.

In the spring of 2012, junior Adam Mendel organized the NAISA Memory Project because he had recently learned that Evans, before his involvement with founding Northwestern, had been the Governor of Colorado right at the time of the infamous massacre. In the massacre, Colorado militia shot about 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians who were not at war with the state. They were mostly old men, women and children. The massacre is said to be the most serious act of genocide committed in the United States.

Supported by Gary Fine, who holds the John Evans chair in Sociology, Mendel began talking about how students could keep the university from covering over possible shameful historical facts. In late January, NAISA and Fine published an editorial asking whether Evans was directly responsible for the massacre, retelling the narrative of what happened. They asked for a Commission on Truth and Justice to investigate and consider revising Northwestern’s official biographies of Evans.

There is no question that Evans was not personally involved in the massacre, which was conducted by militia commander John Chivington. But Evans set in motion the policies that created the militia and forced Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians into Sand Creek. Even at the time, Evans was held responsible.

The Sand Creek Massacre prompted a congressional investigation in 1865. Evans was removed from his federally-appointed post as territorial governor, but continued to finance Colorado’s railroad industry until his death, according to the State of Colorado website. NAISA seeks to examine the relationships between Native American pacification in Colorado, Evans’ accrual of wealth from Colorado’s railroads and his financial contributions to the university.

Although Northwestern has not yet made an official announcement, the concerned students say they have been contacted and that the school has promised to work with them.

Telles-Irvin confirmed through email that a committee will be formed. “The president has asked the provost to assemble a group of scholars to look into the matter,” she wrote in an email. The university has yet to issue an official announcement.

NAISA has a petition online, although it has collected only a modest few hundred signatures. The petition demands that the school go beyond investigating the truth of their claims, and that if it appears that NU profited financially by Evans’ connections to Colorado settlement, the school should make reparations to the Native Americans who were affected. They want a Native American Studies Program and full scholarships for two Native American students of the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes.

Tuesday

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